My high school and college years were dotted with various jobs, work to cover the expenses of higher education. Most were seasonal like the ranger’s assistant during the summers or various jobs on campus. Quite a few were day jobs, pay for a few hours of work loading or unloading trucks.
The cargo of the truck was irrelevant – boxes, furniture, machinery – as long as the pay was good. The most entertaining work involved helping with move-in and/or move-out for theatrical groups. The work was physical and hard, but the roadies supervising were fun and interesting people. The entertainers themselves ranged from nice to pretentious jerks, but it really didn’t matter because they rarely interacted with us.
The best perk was that the job often included backstage passes to watch the performance. Even if I had never heard of the performer prior to being hired, seeing a show from backstage was fun.
Besides, the fact I had never heard of them did not mean they were not famous.
One afternoon, I received a call asking if I could work a move-in / move-out the following day. The move-in would be in the morning, we would have the afternoon free, and we had to be backstage as the performance ended to load the truck.
I never asked who the performer was. Didn’t care. I needed the money. I readily accepted.
The next morning, I met a small group of people, fellow students I knew. We waited on the loading dock of the theater until a truck backed in. Two people exited the cab. The passenger had us sign in on a clip board and started, “We have a truck to unload. Each item, I will tell you where to place it. Place it there and only there. Once we get things inside, we will tell you what to open. What to move. What to do. Don’t play with anything. Don’t break anything. Questions?”
Standard roadie speech to the kids hired to unload. We did not take offense at the bluntness and had no questions, so he rolled up the backdoor and we started unloading.
The back of the truck contained giant rolling black cases, standard for stage work. The boxes were heavy, but rolling them into position was not difficult. The boxes might hold stage lighting, cables, sound equipment, wardrobe or musical instruments and we rolled them to designated locations.
Speakers were next and were stacked in place on the stage.
Technical crews went to work setting up the electronics. They did the critical work. We unrolled cables. Taped them down. Carried things from one point to another. The small professional crew was serious about their work but also quite nice to us. They appreciated that we were all working hard and doing what we were told, so they took some time to explain details about their work. Or tell stories. Both were fun.
Back to the truck. Drums. All in cases. We hauled them to the upstage center. Didn’t open them. Didn’t assemble them. Most musicians don’t want day jobbers handling their equipment and that makes perfect sense, so one of their professional crew members handled that setup.
After several hours, everything had been unloaded from the truck and set up on stage except for one item in the nose – a piano. Wrapped in moving blankets and strapped into place, it was massive. Despite the fact that pianos are on casters, they are quite heavy and difficult to roll.
The same roadie who had spoken to us at the start of the day gathered us around, “Gentlemen. We are about to move the piano. You will do exactly what I say every step of the way. Clear?”
We nodded and entered the trailer. The roadies undid the straps and handed them to us. We rolled the straps and placed them in boxes. We removed the blankets one by one, folded and placed them in the same boxes.
Moving time. The roadie positioned us around the piano, explained each step of the roll.
Moving across the bed of the trailer was not difficult, but moving from the trailer to the concrete dock via a metal bridge was more challenging. When the piano was safely on the dock, we paused for a moment.
A gentleman in his 60’s appeared. He wasn’t crew – dressed casually but not in work clothes and not muscled. He didn’t speak; just watched.
We resumed pushing. Through the stage door into the darkness of backstage and to the stage itself, the gentleman shadowing our every step. Once the piano was positioned, the crew went to work balancing it, making sure it was rock steady on the stage. The gentleman supervised but rarely spoke. After a few location adjustments, he seemed satisfied.
The crew stepped back. The older gentleman sat down and walked through notes. Periodically, he stopped and a technician made adjustments tuning the piano.
The piano was no longer our responsibility, so we continued to work. The stage, however, had taken on a hushed tone. The roadies’ commands to us were made quietly. We took the hint and worked quietly.
The single notes on the piano transformed to chords. To short melodies. And then ever more complex combinations and rhythms. All of us – day jobbers and professional road crew – paused and listened. He was amazing.
And then he stopped. He stood, walked over to our small band of local day crew, and spoke, “Thank you, gentlemen. Hope to see you this evening.” And he disappeared to the dressing rooms.
The roadie reappeared with instructions. “You are welcome to come for the performance and sit backstage. You will check in at this dock door. No friends. No guests. Just you. When you arrive, we will check your names off of this clipboard.” He held the papers in his hands. “If you don’t want to come for the performance, be here at 10 pm sharp for strike. That’s it. Thank you.”
We stepped out into the bright sunlight. Having listened to the pianist, I had already decided to come back for the performance, but had a school project that needed attention. Pocket money was great, but homework was critical.
Hours later, I realized the sun had set. The performance started in just a few minutes. Stay here, be dedicated, and finish the project?
But I remembered the amazing piano from that morning. No choice. The project would wait. I figured I would enjoy the show.
And did I ever. The music was mesmerizing. The entire band was awesome, beautiful complex jazz. Amazing saxophone. A magical bass player. A drummer playing great rifts with ease. Each had starring moments on the stage and were stunning in their talent.
But the piano player – he was something special. He could disappear into the background while the other band members took their time in the spotlight, but when it came back to him the stage was electric. The sold-out crowd loved him and cheered. Encore after encore.
No one wanted the show to end, but it finally did. The performers disappeared and we went to work, starting with the piano. Carefully rolled back to the nose of the truck. Wrapped in blankets. Strapped down. And the rest of the equipment followed as we hustled to the roadies’ commands. Around 2 a.m., the truck was loaded. We signed out, collected our pay and went back to the dorms.
My father was a fan of jazz, so I called him to describe the performance. I talked about each of the performers, but especially the pianist. Dad asked how good he was and my answer, word for word, was, “Not bad for an old guy.”
My dad went silent. “What was the guy’s name?”
I struggled, “Not sure. Bobeck? Bombeck? Something like that.”
“That sounds right.”
“Yeah. That was it. Have you heard of him?”
I don’t think my father could speak for several minutes. When he finally recovered, he told me who Dave Brubeck was and what a legend he was. And he was jealous that I sat backstage for one of his performances.
A couple of months later, my father took me to a jazz festival. The headliner? None other than Dave Brubeck. I didn’t get to move his piano that time, but I still thought he was good. Ok, I thought he was amazing.
For an old guy.